Every year on November 1, a petite woman with a long black ponytail and a brilliantly embroidered blouse follows a trail of mourners from a cemetery in the Guatemalan city of San Juan Comalapa to a mountaintop memorial a few miles away. There, they light candles, place flowers, and eat cookies among the concrete niches for Día de los Muertos, the day of the dead. They’ve been doing this for 16 years, since the first mass graves from Guatemala’s civil war were exhumed at this site.
Carmen Cumes believes her husband, Felipe Poyón, is among the skeletons there. Each year, she’s joined by family members of some of the 45,000 desaparecidos, those who vanished at the hands of the military during three decades of conflict. They carry their photos with them.
At the memorial, mourners cover the graves with flowers, light fires around small altars, and eat and drink. With a blend of pre-Hispanic and modern rituals, the multi-day celebration of Día de los Muertos (also celebrated as Día de los Santos), is meant to reassure the spirits of the dead that they have a home to return to. The memories are somber, but the mood can be joyous, even festive.
But this year, in Guatemala and across the Spanish-speaking world, Día de los Muertos celebrations bore little resemblance to the musical parties of years past. As of October 29, more than 11 million cases of COVID-19 have been counted across Latin America and the Caribbean, and 400,000 people have died. Día de los Muertos was celebrated in eerie silence.
On Friday, in Comalapa, a few families lingered by the graves, visiting the dead and laying out flowers and offerings before authorities locked the gates for the weekend to prevent gatherings. The procession from the cemetery to the memorial was canceled. Instead, Cumes and a few family members gathered on Sunday at the hilltop, where winds whisper through the raised niches holding the unidentified bodies. She placed a yellow marigold on each of the 172 graves.
“As relatives of victims of state repression, as survivors, this pandemic chained us, oppressed us,” she says. “What we could do—just a bit—we did.”
For months, families have been limited to small funerals or none at all. Some never saw their loved ones again after they entered the hospital. They were returned in a sealed coffin or urn. The pandemic has upended the way the dead are buried and mourned, and now, after eight months, taken the most important day of remembrance from millions of people.
Bracing for the pandemic
At the end of July, Allan Álvarez, a forensic advisor for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), delivered a talk on how to manage the dead: what clothes to wear, what equipment to use, how to tell someone their loved one has died. But most importantly, he wanted to convey the importance of the dead for those still living.
His virtual audience of nearly 10,000 people included Guatemalan cemetery workers, firefighters, and nurses. When he launched into his presentation, the first thing he asked was: Why are the dead so important to us?
“The answer is that we are human and we need to close the circles we have,” Álvarez says now. “One of the circles that humans are going to confront some way is death. It’s part of life. And to close that circle, it is important to have rituals in your culture and religion.”
Throughout the pandemic, authorities have sought to balance the rights of the dead to be buried according to their customs, with the safety of those still living. But that wasn’t always possible. As cases spiked, restrictions on movement and the sheer number of dead meant some were buried far from their families, cremated, or simply vanished in the hospital system. In July, dozens of unidentified COVID-19 victims were buried in a designated part of the capital’s cemetery.
Elsewhere, terrible scenes were playing out: in Ecuador, dead bodies lay on the street to rot as hospitals and morgues were overwhelmed. Álvarez knew that disrespecting the dead was not just offensive but could lead to conflict. A number of countries in Latin America, including Guatemala, had initially drafted guidelines barring funerals of any size and requiring bodies to be buried immediately after death. In Guatemala, where ancient Maya tradition blends with Catholicism, cremation is rare and funerals can last for days, drawing hundreds of visitors who come to see the body.
Álvarez lobbied to allow for some version of post-death rituals, and after consultations with ICRC and other health organizations, Guatemala allowed 10 attendees per funeral. They also set up a system of traceability—the guarantee that the person or body entering a hospital is the same one later being buried or cremated, without their identity being lost—and played liaison between overburdened hospitals and families. In the worst-case scenario, Álvarez says, hospitals are given guidelines for how to bury an unclaimed body so it may still be identifiable in the future.
His colleagues had similar success installing a structure for handling the pandemic’s dead in other countries. On a visit to Honduras in August, at the peak of the outbreak, Andrés Rodríguez Zorro, who runs the ICRC’s forensic response in North and Central America, was impressed to see authorities had set aside land for the burial of COVID victims whose families couldn’t afford to buy a grave. Each grave had a cross, a name, and flowers. A few of the crosses without names had been adopted by other mourners, who’d assigned them names, and prayed over them. “It’s a kind of beautiful human act, no? To put a name to someone who has no name.”
The old ways of mourning
Changing burial rituals was difficult in more remote parts of Latin America.
In Peru, the Ministry of Health adapted and translated health campaigns for its Indigenous populations, urging them to wear masks, regulating transport of dead bodies, and limiting the guests allowed at a funeral. But it was hard to pierce the distance and distrust. Some rituals, from cleaning and dressing the dead, to multiple-day vigils where food is served and stories are told, continued in places where health services barely reached.
In Chiriaco, a port town on the eastern side of the Andes, the virus arrived in April with the caminantes (the walkers), those who’d migrated years earlier to work in restaurants or shops in bigger cities and returned home once cities went into lockdown. Then, in May, members of each family traveled to their nearest bank to receive government-issued cash assistance. The virus spiked the next month.
When Adeli Kinin Tiwi’s father became sick with COVID-19 symptoms in a small village called Shushug in May, there was no medication left at the health center, not even painkillers. Nearly all of the doctors and nurses had contracted the virus or left. There was little information about how many people in the region were sick or had died. Rather than travel to the hospital, many relied on traditional medicine, a drink of ginger, lemon, and an indigenous plant called matico, which was being doled out from large pots in every neighborhood.
Tiwi’s father died not long after likely contracting the virus. “We were forgotten,” she says.
In these small villages, local leaders would report the dead, and the government would deliver a coffin. A team of funeral workers in PPE would arrive to fumigate the home, place the body in a plastic bag, and seal the coffin. It didn’t always work. Ebher Castro, a funeral worker in Bagua, the nearest city, said that sometimes his team would prepare the bodies for burial only to hear that once they left, the dead were removed from the coffins, taken from the body bags, redressed, and displayed for a multi-day vigil. Dozens of relatives would crowd inside houses to pay their respects. One family, upon seeing the plastic bag Castro intended to put the body in, refused. Their dead relative, they said, “was not a chicken.”
A different kind of Day of the Dead
Years ago, Martha Romero pointed at a photo of herself in a red dress, brown hair styled into an updo, and said she wanted that picture included in their ofrenda, or altar, when she died. Over the summer, her whole family tested positive for COVID-19 in La Candelaría, a town on the outskirts of Mexico City, and both Martha and her husband Felipe Palma were hospitalized. He recovered; she did not. Martha died on August 19, at age 61, one of the 90,000 people who have died of the virus in Mexico.
Now, Felipe added that photo, encircled by a wreath of flowers and lights, to the ofrenda in a small structure outside their house, joining portraits of the couple’s parents and grandparents. Rows of candles, skeletons, snacks, and sodas adorned the room. “My mother is not going to come here just for some tangerines,” said her son, Enrique. “We needed to build it with all the things she liked and all the other memories she liked. If she’s going to come, she must feel like she’s loved.”
On Día de Los Muertos, the family used to gather in the altar room for a party. This year, they piled the altar with chocolates and pan de muerto, a sweet bread made for the holiday, but the mood was grim. They added a hammock, which Martha loved to lay in, and a dog figurine. They placed her ashes on the altar. “We’re lucky because we have her with us,” says Felipe.
Other families in Mexico City have no place to visit their dead. Some cemeteries have been closed since the pandemic began. Others shut down for the holiday to prevent crowds from gathering. Police patrolled the perimeter of cemeteries that were harder to close off, and the usual vendors peddling pan de muerto and flowers stayed away. There was no music, laughter, or the sound of drinks being poured. A gravedigger named Victor in the cemetery of Chimlhaucán said that some people had come to the gates with flowers for their family member’s tombs, which he tried to deliver. But there were 10,000 graves, and only so much he could do.
In August, realizing the pandemic would not be over by November, Johanna Itzhel Blanco Ruiz gathered her students from the National University of Mexico in Mexico City, and proposed a digital Día de los Muertos. Blanco, a professor and event planner, proposed that students photograph their ofrendas, and ask their friends to do the same. Within two weeks, participants in 25 countries, from Germany to Japan, were building ofrendas in their homes.
All weekend, events played out across Facebook, Instagram, Zoom, and YouTube. A former student livestreamed “La Llorona,” a folk song about a weeping woman, from a boat in the canals of Mexico City. Hundreds voted in the “Catrina challenge,” to choose the most convincingly painted face of the famous Día de los Muertos icon, and played loteria, a type of bingo, virtually. There was no mention of COVID-19 on the event’s pages—Blanco preferred to keep the focus on Día de los Muertos.
In her own home, Blanco placed the ashes of her pet parrots on a small altar, alongside roses, her mother’s favorite flower, and photographs of her mother. She preferred not to go to the cemetery anyways. “I don’t think the people who pass away stay in a box,” she says. “They stay with you. When the people die, the bodies die, and if you forget them they really die. But if you remember them every day, they’ll never die.”
This story was supported in part by the International Committee of the Red Cross.